Wednesday, January 26, 2011

THE IN-LAWS: PARASHAT YITRO 5771/2011 5771/2011

                       WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi

PARASHAT YITRO:  2011/5771



            Parashat Yitro, famous for the recitation of the Ten Commandments, begins with Moshe’s reunification with his family, his wife, two sons and Yitro, his father-in-law.  Yitro hears of what has happened to Moshe and the Israelites and how God delivered them from Egypt.  Yitro praises God and acknowledges God’s greatness.  Yitro then witnesses Moshe’s travails in judging the people.  Disapproving, Yitro advises Moshe to appoint a system of judges to share the burden.  Moshe listens to this advice, and Yitro returns to his own land, Midian. (Exodus, Chapter 18.)

            Over the course of this chapter, Yitro is continuously described as Moshe’s father-in-law.  The text uses the phrase חותן משה, “the father-in-law of Moshe,” to describe or identify Yitro seven separate times in the course of the chapter.  The text uses various forms of the term חותן, father-in-law, another six times within the chapter.  We already know that Yitro is Moshe’s father-in-law.  Why does the Torah feel compelled to describe him thus so many times at this point in the narrative?

            The answer relates to power in the ancient world.  The first line of the parashah tells us that Yitro heard about what had happened in Egypt before he was reunited with Moshe. (Exodus 18:1.)  He knew that with the help of God, Moshe had defeated the world’s greatest power, had liberated an entire nation, had destroyed the Egyptian army, and had recently defeated the Amalakites.  This essentially made Moshe the most powerful man in the world.  In this position, Moshe could have easily deposed the old Pharaoh, made himself king, declared himself a god and exerted tyrannical control over everyone in the region, including Yitro.

            Thus, when Yitro goes to greet Moshe, there is a sense of trepidation.  What is their relationship now that Moshe has accomplished all that he has accomplished?  The first words out of Yitro’s mouth when he sees Moshe are, “I am your father-in-law….” (Exodus 18:6.)  Yitro finds it necessary to remind Moshe of their relationship.

            What happens next is most telling.  Moshe goes out to publicly greet his father-in-law, and he bows before him and kisses him. (Exodus 18:7.)  The most powerful man in the world prostrates himself before his father-in-law.  He then tells Yitro in detail of all the things God, not Moshe, did for the sake of Israel. (Exodus 18:8.)  And this is the point that Yitro needs to hear.  It was not Moshe who defeated the mighty Egyptian empire, but God.  Moshe is not the most powerful man in the world, his power deriving solely from God in Whom all true power rests.  Once Yitro understands this he rejoices. (Exodus 18:9.)  We get the sense that not only is he happy to hear of Israel’s miraculous redemption but that he is also relieved.

            The repetition of the term father-in-law reaffirms this relationship.  Not only is God the source of all power, but power cannot obliterate the natural relationships that exist between people.  Even if Moshe has seen to the defeat of Egypt and become a national leader to his people, he still owes deference and respect to his father-in-law. 

            This flies in the face of the morality of power that existed in the ancient world, and still exists today.  A king was all powerful.  The king claimed either divine right or claimed to be divine himself.  Therefore, he was the law.  Over the course of history, kings and want-to-be-kings have murdered innumerable close relatives, including parents, in-laws, children, spouses and others, in the effort to gain, keep or consolidate power.  The moral rules of familial fealty cease to operate when ultimate power is concerned.

            Our parashah rejects this notion.  Yitro is still Moshe’s father-in-law, perhaps the only father figure Moshe has ever known.  As such, no matter what Moshe has accomplished, no matter how powerful Moshe has become, he owes Yitro respect and reverence by virtue of that relationship.

            Assured of this fact, Yitro has the confidence to criticize his son-in-law.  He tells Moshe that his attempt to act as judge for the entire nation is “no good.” (Exodus 18:17.)  Like many an in-law before and after him, Yitro sees it as his place to offer his son-in-law unsolicited advice.  And Moshe, the man who brought Egypt to its knees, who destroyed the world’s most powerful army, who spoke with God face-to-face and who would receive the law from Sinai, dutifully listens.  This is because Moshe understood that all power derives from God, and as such, it cannot alter the fidelity owed our parents and in-laws.

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